Core Concepts

What game are you playing?

In: Core Concepts, Mindset

In a recent interview with Justin Welsh, we spent a good amount of time talking about how (and why) business can be thought of as a game.

Here's a short quote from Justin:

"I love the game of business. Like, to me, it's like a video game. Right? You unlock levels and, and you figure out new things. And I think the most interesting thing is it's not just a one player game, it's a multiplayer game. And I think the best players who are playing that game have unlocked sort of that multiplayer, you know, way of playing."

I really appreciated Justin’s willingness to go there with me – a lot of people (even if they feel this way) wouldn’t admit they are “playing” a game. Because “playing” sounds like you’re doing something for fun. Games have scoreboards – and the obvious scoreboard in the game of business is money.

Money comes from people. Some people see money as a very personal thing and buying something as a personal, even high-stakes decision.

…so you can see why admitting that we’re playing a game could come across the wrong way.

But there are a lot of apt comparisons to gameplay. Mike Whelan (an incredibly thoughtful and kind member of The Lab) made several on Twitter:

But business is not a single universal game that we either opt into or out of.

Like a child with a big imagination, you create your OWN game. You define your own object of the game, you choose the rules that are important to you, the stakes, who you play the game with, and as Mike said, which resource(s) you start with.

“Gamifying” business is a mechanism that helps you reach goals and enjoy the process.

Two types of games

Most people hear “game” and think of winners, losers, and conclusions. But as defined by James Carse, there are actually two main types of games – finite games and infinite games:

"A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play."
Finite games are those instrumental activities - from sports to politics to wars - in which the participants obey rules, recognize boundaries and announce winners and losers. The infinite game - there is only one - includes any authentic interaction, from touching to culture, that changes rules, plays with boundaries and exists solely for the purpose of continuing the game. A finite player seeks power; the infinite one displays self-sufficient strength. Finite games are theatrical, necessitating an audience; infinite ones are dramatic, involving participants...

I like this dichotomy – it applies to life as well as business.

Finite games

Let's start with how finite games apply. to business.

You may have heard of the book Built to Sell by John Warrilow. The big idea in this book is that you should build your business in such a way that it can operate without you, thereby making it an asset that can easily be bought and sold.

This is an attractive idea for a lot of business owners – it's similar to habit #2 in Stephen Covey's The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People – "beginning with the end in mind."

I've built projects for the purpose of being sold – my first business, Tixers, was acquired in 2015 and my second business, Unreal Collective, was acquired in 2020.

Playing a finite game in business may be one of the quickest ways to generate wealth – but these games require scale and independence from YOU as the creator.

Infinite games

For creators who are building businesses around their personal name and personality, we're usually playing an infinite game.

Our identity isn't going away. We likely won't change our name.

We can't sell our identity and we don't want to sell all of our time to someone else either. So that means we'll always be building equity behind our personal creative platform.

We may leverage that equity to play other finite games (like being brought on to a company as an investor or advisor) but when you're focused on building value behind your name – a name you expect to have for the rest of your life – you're playing an infinite game.

Winning an infinite game

As defined by Carse, the only way to "win" an infinite game is by continuing to play. To simply stay in business.

If you're able to stay in business, you'll likely experience growth and improvement as a consequence.

You may have heard of the Lindy Effect. The Lindy Effect is a theory that the future life expectancy of non-perishable* things, like a business or an idea, is proportional to its current age. So the longer that something has existed, the longer its remaining life expectancy.This is because longevity implies that something has resistance to change, obsolescence, or competition, and greater odds of continued existence into the future.

*It's important to notice the "non-perishable" qualification – organisms (like humans) are perishable by design, and so the Lindy Effect doesn't apply.

This was named after Lindy's Delicatessen in New York. It began as a joke between comedians, but was later adopted by Nassim Taleb in his book, Antifragile:

"If a book has been in print for forty years, I can expect it to be in print for another forty years. But, and that is the main difference, if it survives another decade, then it will be expected to be in print another fifty years. This, simply, as a rule, tells you why things that have been around for a long time are not "aging" like persons, but "aging" in reverse. Every year that passes without extinction doubles the additional life expectancy. This is an indicator of some robustness. The robustness of an item is proportional to its life!"

The reason most creators fail is that they voluntarily stop playing the game.

If you stop playing an infinite game...you lose. You forfeit your greatest asset towards future success – your previous gameplay.

One of the biggest reasons I am where I am today is that I've simply continued to play the game since stepping onto the field of play and starting my business in 2017. I've changed my strategy and I've utilized different resources, but the core of my business has been the same for five years now.

If the Lindy Effect is real, that means I've already bought myself another five years. And with every year that passes, my ability to stay in the game gets easier and easier. My lifestyle gets better and better.

Designing your own game

Let's focus on what I said earlier – that aren't all playing the same game. You may be playing the same type of game as someone else (an infinite game, we'll assume) but the specifics of your game may be different.

The best part? You get to choose.

Here are some typical element of game design:

Tools of play

Games are often classified by the components required to play them (e.g. miniatures, a ball, cards, a board and pieces, or a computer). These tools may also include tokens, meant to represent other things – a pawn on a board, play money, or an intangible item such as a point scored.

In our creator games, we're dealing with the resources of time, energy, money, and attention from others.

Often, we utilize some of these raw materials to manufacture NEW tools that give us an advantage over others – think digital assets like your website, newsletter, social media profiles, or products. As time passes, you also build powerful tools in your reputation, audience, personal network, and even team members!

Rule development

Rules generally determine the order of turns, the rights and responsibilities of the players, each player's goals, and how game components interact with each other to produce changes in a game's state. Player rights include when they may spend resources or move tokens.

We like to think that "rules" keep things fair. But in the game of life, we realize that sometimes people seem to operate by different rules. And choosing to follow the rules we've set forth for ourselves may end up hurting our standing in the game.

Let me give you an example...

Since you define your own rules for your infinite game, you may determine that you don't want to spam peoples' email or text messages. That's a rule I abide by – I don't send direct communication that I wasn't given consent for.

But there are indeed players who decide this rule doesn't apply to their game. You've probably received a spam message just while reading this piece!

When we believe that things are unfair, we're usually projecting our personal rules on someone else's game. When, in fact, they may not be following those same rules.

YOU choose the rules you play by. You can't define the rules that other players choose for their game, however. And this may be an important distinction to understand if you choose to include other players in your game.

Single or multiplayer

Most games require multiple players.

Single-player games pit the player against an element of the environment, against one's own skills, against time, or against chance. Multiplayer games involve competing with or against each other to reach the game's goal.

Most single-player games are puzzles – and you don't need your strategy to include the moves of other players in the game in order to win.

As an introvert, it's easy for me to fall into believing that I'm playing a single-player game. But in reality, I don't think it's possible for creators to engage in a true single-player game. Not only because we depend on serving the needs of others in order to succeed, but because we are certainly going to deal with competition at some point. And to completely ignore competition is likely a competitive disadvantage.

Justin and Mike both called out the advantage to intentionally playing multiplayer games.

Storyline and plot

Not all games have an overarching narrative plot, and I won't work too hard to make this element tie into your creator game. But the point I'd like to emphasize is that while you may be the protagonist in the storyline of your game, the choices you make effect other players in the game.

Even if your friends, family, and loved ones aren't "playing" the same game you are, they are impacted by the choices you make on the field of play. That impact should be carefully considered.

Luck, strategy, and skill

All games have an element of luck, strategy, or skill. Some games have a combination of two or all three. I would argue the infinite games you and I are designing are complex and certainly involve all three.

We can acquire skill and design strategy. But we'd be foolish to ignore the role that luck plays in our success. But you can also design for luck.

Playing meta games

We all like to win. We all like to set and achieve goals.

If infinite games don't have winners or losers...what role to goals play? How can we scratch our itch for winning?

While the goal of being a creator is to continue being a creator, we can design finite games within our day-to-day, week-to-week, month-to-month, or year-to-year. In fact, we absolutely must create these games.

That's what goal setting does for us. It gives us a temporary field of play within our larger gameplay.

One of my biggest goals right now is to get Creative Elements into the top 20 Careers podcasts on the Apple charts. That's a finite game with a winnable outcome. I choose which tools I'll utilize to reach that goal. I create my own strategy leveraging those tools and I decide which rules I will follow (my own and the rules of Apple's terms of service)!

This is a multiplayer game – there are thousands of other podcasts that are shooting for the same goal. My strategy has to take those players into account – and while we may all be playing by some of the same rules (Apple's terms of service) they may have slightly different rules. They will also have their own strategies (like publishing twice per week or once per month).

You get to choose the meta games you play.

Choosing games you can win

Since you have the power to choose the games you play, I recommend playing games you have a chance of winning.

Now, of course that is pretty subjective. In an absolute sense, I'm sure you could theoretically win ANY game if you're willing to acquire better Tools, form a better Strategy, and have some element of Luck.

But as I've gotten older, I've come to realize that some players have natural or pre-existing advantages that make it difficult to overcome.

People playing games in the finance world often move to New York. If you want to get into film or TV, you'll likely want to move to Los Angeles.

Why?

Because that strategy helps you acquire better tools for success – proximity to other key players in those multiplayer games make you more likely to succeed.

But what if you're not willing to move?

Well, you're going to have a much tougher time playing that game.

I'm not encouraging anyone to aim low, play small, or throw away their dreams. But as I've learned more about a lot of the players I was comparing myself to, I realized they have different Tools and Rules than I do:

  • They're willing to move or travel to where other players are
  • They're willing to dedicate 16 hours of their day to gameplay
  • They aren't prioritizing family or friends in their storyline
  • They wield more powerful tools (money, reputation) that they've acquired through years of gameplay before I began

Even with great luck, a winning strategy would require a ton of time and likely depend on those players somehow losing their existing advantage.

There are competitors who are willing to make sacrifices and tradeoffs in pursuit of winning that you may not be willing to make.

At first, this realization was disappointing – I've always considered myself to be at the highest levels of ambition. But as time has passed, this has helped me to recalibrate what "winning" looks like for me and frame it in MY reality based on the Tools, Rules, and Storyline of my game.

I've come to realize that a winning strategy is to design a game where there aren't competitors with an existing advantage. A game where beginning to play NOW will help you build an advantage that compounds over time.

I admire the approach of Ryan Holiday. Even though one of his greatest Tools in the early 2010s was a unique take on marketing, he chose to play a different game – a game to become the premier modern-day teacher of Stoicism.

Stoicism has been around for centuries. The research is ancient. But there weren't a ton of other players in that game when he began writing The Obstacle Is The Way.

By choosing a game where he had a relative head start and then consistently publishing content on Stoicisim for the last decade, he's built a compounding advantage that would be tough to overcome for new writers on Stoicism. You'd need to find some unique angle (which probably means playing a different game entirely).

But there's one more important step...

Modeling your gameplay

One of the best ways to improve is to learn through gameplay. And we often improve our gameplay by modeling after better, existing players.

A high school quarterback studes tape of Tom Brady. A chess player watches the gameplay of the chess Masters.

In business, especially creator businesses where those players are so visible, we often model our gameplay after other creators.

And while it may improve our gameplay, this comparison can also put us down a dark path of feeling inferior. I sometimes feel this way when I look at the work of creators I have on the show – Justin included!

In an infinite game, outcomes (results) are determined by the inputs. The sum of those elements of gameplay.

Justin's Tools include the years he spent leading SaaS companies, his experience in sales, and the amount of time he's willing to put in. His strategy includes writing each day so that he can publish 2x/day on Twitter, 3x/day on LinkedIn, and 1x/week via email.

He's been running that strategy for years now and his success is a result. As he's built a following, that became a major Tool in his gameplay – when he posts on LinkedIn, he sees massive engagement, which puts his writing in front of new people, further building his following, and further developing the Tool that is his audience.

His advantage in the game compounds.

At this point, Justin is working with Tools that you and I simply don't have. And while we may be able to model after his strategy, we can't expect the same results on a day-to-day basis. He just has better tools.

And if you're like me, you may realize that you aren't even interested in modeling that same strategy right now – you may feel like you're not ready to commit to publishing that often. In that case, you really shouldn't compare your results to his results!

This really sank in for me when I heard MrBeast talk about how he spends his time:

MrBeast is focused on utilizing ALL of his time and ALL of his resources to make the best YouTube videos possible.

He's focused on building a unique personal network of other people who ONLY care about YouTube as well.

He and his friends agreed to the Rule of not drinking, doing drugs, or even dating in the pursuit of YouTube.

If you're not willing or able to acquire and wield the same Tools, play by the same Rules, or adopt a similar Strategy, then you should find a new model that fits YOUR gameplay.

Conclusion

If you're totally focused on "winning," you may be missing the bigger picture of the infinite game you're playing as a creator.

The longer you're able to play that game, the more likely you are to have the optionality to continue playing. And the more likely you are to experience outsized results.

Goal-setting allows you to experience the thrill of winning finite games along the way, but you remember that in ALL cases, you're in control of game design.

When you think about the games you're choosing to play through the lens of Tools, Rules, Multiple Players, Strategy, Skill, and Luck, you realize you have the agency to make decisions to further your position in the game. But remember – the other players in your game are playing their own games too – and projecting your Rules onto their games may invalidate your Strategy.

Think about the resources you have. Create a strategy to acquire the resources you don't yet have. Be realistic about your assets and choose to play games that you can win.

And as you're modeling your gameplay or even just comparing yourself to others, ask yourself, "Is this person playing the same game that I am?" If not, you're setting yourself up for disappointment.

Choose models playing a similar game and you'll be much happier.

Written by
Jay Clouse
I'm the lead Creator Scientist writing this newsletter. I also host Creative Elements, a narrative-interview podcast talking with today's top creators with more than one million downloads.

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